For some reason, travel is one of those things we take for granted as having to be expensive. The family vacation, for example, is a time-honored tradition that most families spend months saving up to take and then have to scrimp and save once they get back to make up for what they overspent.
Instead of getting discouraged, though, why not look at it as a challenge to come in under budget this year? There are lots of ways to save money on family vacations. Here are just a few of them:
1. Filtered and Reusable Water Bottles
The reusable water bottle is a godsend to people on a budget, especially while traveling. Take it one step further and go for the kind that comes with a built-in filter. The filter will help you ensure that the water you use to fill up your bottle (even if it comes from a water fountain in an airport) is safe to drink and free of cold- and flu-inducing microbes.
Taking these bottles with you can help you can help you save $20-$30 per person per trip. This is because it negates the need to purchase beverages. Even under normal circumstances, a bottle of water is usually at least a dollar. At roadside stops, airports, hotels, and tourist stops, a simple bottle of water can often cost as much as (if not more than) two dollars. Sodas and juices cost even more!
2. Pack Snacks
A lot of travel-based websites will tell you to avoid checking your luggage and to only travel with carry-on baggage. That’s fine if you’re traveling alone, but if you’re traveling with your family, you’re going to be checking at least a couple of bags.
That’s okay! Stuff some travel-friendly snacks into your checked bags (granola bars, bags of trail mix, dried fruit, etc. — things that can get broken or squished and still be fine to eat).
Packing snacks accomplishes a couple of goals: It keeps you from having to stop and buy snacks at horrifically inflated prices (if a bottle of water gets marked up to $2, imagine what happens to single-serve granola bars). It also helps you create room for souvenirs! As you eat through your snack stores, room gets freed up in your luggage. This saves you from having to find a way to get those souvenirs home. Speaking of which…
3. Save Souvenir Shopping Until the End
This is easier to do if you are taking a destination vacation. If a road trip is involved, this is trickier. Do your best, though, to not stop to shop along the way there or during the beginning of your vacation after you get there.
Okay, you can look through shops (everybody does; it’s part of the fun of traveling), but don’t actually buy anything until you’re on the last couple of days of your trip. This way you’ll get to see all of the different souvenirs available and then pick the one (or maybe two if they aren’t expensive) things that you most want to have to help you remember the trip. You won’t be tempted to simply keep buying things (or, worse, having to go through the return process at a souvenir stand) when you find something new that you like better.
4. Travel with Friends (or stay with friends)
Make it a joint vacation! Traveling with another family cuts down on expenses considerably. You can join forces on hotel stays (renting a suite and packing everyone into it is a lot of fun and easier on everybody’s budgets), and you might even be able to get discounted group travel rates with rental vehicles, at tourist stops, etc. Make sure you plan for these things ahead of time, though — if you simply show up with a group of twelve most places will charge you more because you will seem like an inconvenience.
To this end, if you can’t (or don’t want) to travel with another family, why not go visit another family? Family vacations can still be really fun even when you’re using them to go see relatives or friends you haven’t seen in a while — especially if those people live in a place that’s fun to visit (like New York or California). Staying with friends or family eliminates the need to stay in a hotel and can save you hundreds of dollars on your vacation.
Just remember to repay the favor when someone wants to stay with you!
5. Travel Rewards Credit Card
As a family on a budget, you probably do your best to stay away from credit cards (or at least to use them as frugally as possible). If you can, sign up for a credit card that will give you points you can put toward your travel expenses. This way, you can use your credit card like you usually would and help cut down expenses for your trip at the same time.
Be careful here! Make sure you read and agree with the fine print of your agreement! Don’t sign up for a card that will force you to spend years building up points only to be given a $25 gift voucher. Do the research and find a good program.
6. Travel Off-Season
Most family vacations happen in the summer or over the winter holidays. The airlines, hotels, rental car companies, and tourist destinations know this and hike their prices up during these seasons. To save money, travel during off-peak times. Use a fall or spring break from school as an opportunity for your family to get away. Or, travel from mid-week to mid-week. This way your kids don’t have to miss as much school and you’ll save tons of money on the trip.
7. Avoid Chains Whenever Possible
Chain hotels and restaurants use their reputations to justify inflated prices. Avoid these places whenever you can. Stay at a Mom and Pop B&B or inn instead of a chain hotel. Eat at restaurants that aren’t in the guidebooks (use apps like Yelp and Urban Spoon to help you find good, affordable local dining). Use public transportation instead of renting a car (if this is doable).
Getting off of that “beaten path” helps you save money and gives your family a chance to see what the local culture of a place is really like.
You see? Taking the family on vacation doesn’t have to automatically imply budget decimation. With a little creativity and advance planning, that family trip could be downright affordable!
What are some of the best ways you’ve found to save money and stay on budget while you travel?
Erin Steiner is a freelance writer who covers personal finance, budgeting, and helping entrepreneurs who want to learn how to be first on Google. As a freelancer, she is well versed in the restraints of a tight budget (and using creative ways to get around them).